Legal Eagle v. PR Director: What do we have in common?

Posted on August 18, 2013

Legal Eagle v. PR Director:  What do we have in common?

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One of my dearest friends is an attorney (God bless her), and although she now knows what a demanding profession she’s chosen, I personally knew she’d have a time of it when I read a bit of her textbook materials. I remember thinking, “Thank God I have no desire to practice law. PR is the life for me!”

Fast-forward a few more years than I’d like to admit, and I fully understand the how much the law she ran to – and I ran from – permeates my professional life. As a public relations director, I too have had to learn certain nuances of our legal system when working on sensitive client issues.

Remember communications law classes from college? Unbeknownst to me at 20, those were built into our curriculum for a reason and not just to fill hours – we need them! While attorneys work in the court of law, we work in the court of public opinion which at times can be much less forgiving.

But because the legal system governs so many aspects related to our clients, we should know, understand and adhere to the complicated laws that fit into the structure of public relations.

Additionally, this knowledge enables us to better work with our legal counterparts – creating a smoother, faster and more manageable plan of action for our mutual clients.

Though there are a number of laws that govern certain industries – and thus clients specifically – the following is a broad list of “must learn” legal issues for today’s PR professionals:

  • Slander and Libel – Slander is spoken defamation whereas libel is written defamation. Of course, public relations practitioners say and write A LOT – and it is vital that we know the words we say and write  on behalf of our clients are not falsely malicious and therefore wrongly cause great monetary, mental and reputation damage to a person or company.  (http://academic.mu.edu/adpr/ekachai/chapters/ch12.htm)
  • Trademark and Copyright – As a PR practitioner, it’s important for you to always understand legal parameters for these two are very different.  Trademarks are registered words, names, symbols or devices used to identify a product. Copyrights are protections of creative works from unauthorized use (you can spot copyrighted works by the “©”).  If you are going to refer to any copyright or trademark, know the law and follow it properly. The alternative could cost you. (http://academic.mu.edu/adpr/ekachai/chapters/ch12.htm
  • Invasion of Privacy – Privacy law differentiates between public figures and private figures – as well as under what situations individuals have the right to withhold information that could be privy to public scrutiny. PR practitioners need to understand how the law protects private individuals in order to avoid the potential for legal mishaps. (http://www.ehow.com/list_6706417_public-relation-laws.html )
  • Sunshine Laws/Freedom of Information Act – If you’re working for a government agency, know and understand Sunshine Laws, which are essentially regulations requiring openness in government. What this means is that meetings, records, deliberations, votes, etc. are available to the public. There are specific instances when meetings can be closed, but there are very specific mandates and rules that must be followed prior without it falling into the “illegal” category.  The Freedom of Information Act requires agencies to share obtained information with the public (and of course, media). PR professionals must always keep these laws in mind when planning meetings and when working with sensitive information. (http://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/sunshinelaws.asp and http://www.foia.gov/about.html)
  • The Sarbanes-Oxley Act – For internal communications departments representing publicly traded companies, this law is a must-know. Though there are many facets to this Act – all aimed to keep the Enron crashes from happening again – a PR team should simply understand that full disclosure of results and material changes to finances or operations are a must. (http://www.inc.com/encyclopedia/sarbanes-oxley.html)
  • Data Preservation – Each agency, corporation or business has an enormous amount of metadata (data about data) stored on computers and servers. And although there is no mandatory U.S. law governing the retention of these materials, it is vital to understand what conditions are currently in place as outlined in the 1986  Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and the Protect Our Children Act of 2008. It is also vital to keep informed regarding potential amendments that may change what is and is not allowed. This is important for you – especially as PR counsel.  (http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-57575160-38/congressman-endorses-data-retention-law-then-backs-away/ and https://www.eff.org/issues/mandatory-data-retention/us)

Though this is a small snapshot of the vast laws, guidelines and rules, understanding the basics of each issue listed above – and how they may affect the work that you do – will make you a better professional and client counsel.

We are “lawyers” in the court of public opinion – and, after all, isn’t that the most intense courtroom there is?  Just ask Paula Deen. 

 

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